Reviewed by Colette van Kerckvoorde, Bard College
It is a common belief that meaning is contained in individual words and that knowledge and understanding of the basic meaning of lexical items leads to the correct comprehension of texts in a language. In this book Ruth Wajnryb demonstrates that this is a misconception: The meaning of any statement, she argues, is conveyed through complex interactions of several elements that make up language. A dictionary, although useful, can only offer limited assistance in many instances.
This volume is a collection of approximately 100 short sections that could be read independently; they are, however, organized into ten chapters. Each chapter has a brief, half-page introduction. All of the sections focus on linguistic samples taken from various interactions and encounters in the day-to-day life of the author. There are musings about conversations with her daughter, reflections on the titles of books at the local bookstore, thoughts about statements on bumper stickers, and so forth. W has a keen sense of observation, and she draws the reader’s attention to several linguistic features of the English language in a nontechnical, captivating way. The sections are written in the style of the weekly column that W writes for The Sydney Morning Herald, even though she does not indicate that the material in this book has ever been printed elsewhere.
There is neither a general introduction nor any afterword or conclusion in this book. W dives right in, provides many examples, and frequently lets her readers draw their own conclusions. She suggests that grammar plays an important role in conveying meaning, and reminds the reader that we frequently express what we want to say without actually saying it, instead relying on our audience’s ability to read between the lines. She demonstrates how language can be used to serve one’s own interest, as often observed in politicians, and also muses about the language of texts that are intended for the public domain, such as advertisements, films, bestselling books and their titles, affirmations, bumper stickers, and so on. She convincingly demonstrates that celebrated reference works such as the Oxford English Dictionary do not prove particularly helpful when confronted with contemporary instances of words such as special and hygiene.
Those with an interest in language but no background in linguistics will enjoy reading this book and will want to make it part of their own library because W’s style is informal, lively, and simple; because she has a good sense of humor; and because the topics she selected are entertaining. This book would also make a nice addition to the collection of any public lending library.